I am having a hard time reading this notebook because it got very wet, but I can remember that it was about a year ago when Don Kennard asked if I would like to paddle a canoe 90-odd miles down the Rio Grande through what he promised would be spectacular canyons. He asked it one sultry midnight at a party in Austin, Texas. At that hour almost anything sounds like a wonderful idea, and I have promised to do a lot of things then that I never got around to. A little twang inside my head told me Kennard wouldn't forget about this in the morning, but I kept listening anyhow.
"We're going to see, feel, taste and record that section of the river," he said, flushed with what I assume was enthusiasm. "We'll be the first working scientific expedition to go through there since the Hill Expedition in 1899. There are thousands of prehistoric Indian sites no scientist has ever looked at, and Lord knows how many rare plants to be found, and the geology is fantastic. Besides that, there are some pretty good rapids to run, and some good old boys to sit around the fire with, and at night the stars are right in your face."
Kennard is a robust, speckle-bearded fellow in his early 40s who played football at North Texas State University and was for 20 years a member of the Texas legislature, where he set a senate filibuster record of 29 hours, 22 minutes. To use up the time, he proposed a Texas Hall of Heroes and discussed 460 candidates for membership before two senators finally surrendered the votes he wanted. Now Kennard was with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, working on a wilderness preservation project.
"We're going to explore the area in more than a cursory way," Kennard said. "It'll be a trip you'll never forget, you can count on that. How much do you know about canoeing?"
April 14, 1974
"You paddle on one side and then the other."
"Sure. It's easy. You'll catch on. When you turn over, what the hell, everybody does."
"Everybody turns over?"
"Sooner or later everybody tumps over. Nothing to worry about if you don't get caught under the canoe against a rock, or hurt yourself too bad. What do you say? Got the sporting blood?"
"Sounds like a wonderful idea to me."
Kennard didn't forget. He phoned and brought over a couple of U.S. Marine surplus waterproof packs. "Here's how this thing started," he said, while I was wondering what to put into the packs besides my knife and sleeping bag. "The Parks and Wildlife Commission, the General Land Office and the Texas Historical Survey Commission asked the LBJ to conduct a survey of areas of Texas that should be preserved. So we're beginning to look at 14 natural and rare sites and write them up from the standpoints of botany, archaeology, zoology and geology. Graduate students from all over the state will follow up and do a more thorough job on what we begin.
"In the next five or 10 years we hope to cover 150 sites that should be protected as parks or wilderness areas. But this is the first one. We've got some strong people on this trip—Stephen Spurr, the president of the University of Texas, Bob Armstrong, the Land Commissioner, Jenkins Garrett, a member of the Board of Regents, Clifton Caldwell, the chairman of the Texas Historical Commission. They'll be in a position to draw attention to what we're doing. Of course, we'll have a little pure fun in the Peggy Eaton Appreciation Society style."
For many years Kennard and a group of lawyers, politicians and other Texans have gathered to ride horseback through the mountains, float rivers and generally step around on nature. Once they climbed Sentinel Peak, the highest mountain in northern Mexico. Sitting up there, they decided to form a society. They named it after Peggy Eaton, who ran a boardinghouse with her mother in Washington, D.C. during the Andrew Jackson Administration. Peggy Eaton was married to an officer who spent too much time overseas. She took to messing around with a Cabinet member, and there was a scandal. But Andrew Jackson kept inviting her to dinner anyhow. "She was a free spirit, and we admire that," said Kennard. The slogan of their society is: Any Friend of Andrew Jackson's Is a Friend of Mine.
Society members like to go places by all sorts of conveyances. A couple of years ago a number of Peggy Eatoners and several members of a group called the Gosh Awmighty Fellas chose to ride their motorcycles to Mexico City. An El Paso lawyer, Jesus Ochoa, who had never been on a motorcycle before, had somebody show him how to shift gears and twist the throttle, and he made it all the way to San Luis Potosi before he and the famous criminal lawyer Warren Burnett both wrecked at the big traffic circle and broke several bones.
About that same time Kennard was taking a trip on a boxcar. He and a few others, including his teen-age daughter Karen, hopped a Texas & Pacific freight from Fort Worth to El Paso. Kennard fell off and caught the moving train nine cars back. At the first stop, a few miles outside Fort Worth, Kennard ran up to join the others. The train started up suddenly. Kennard grabbed a ladder and fell again, this time into a bar ditch, where he lay with torn clothes and bleeding knees watching the train depart for West Texas. He took a taxi home. The phone rang. At gunpoint the cops had rousted Karen and the others off the train in Weatherford, 30 miles away. Kennard drove out and brought them back to Fort Worth. But two members of the group returned to the railroad, caught the 11 p.m. freight to El Paso, rode another freight back to San Antonio and flew home from there—a performance in the Peggy Eaton tradition.
I drove to the home of Anders Saustrup, field director of the Rare Plants Study Center of the University of Texas, and threw my two waterproof packs into the back of a pickup truck hitched to a trailer hauling six aluminum canoes. "See you on the river," Kennard said. He and Geologist Dwight Deal and graduate student Carl Teinert got into the truck for the all-night drive down to Black Gap at the edge of the Big Bend. I was to fly down next day with Bob Armstrong in his Beechcraft Bonanza. The weather was clear and warm. A lovely Texas spring.
The trip [from Black Gap through the canyons] could be disastrous if someone broke a leg. There would be no way to get an injured person out other than to float out over a period of several days. It would be extremely difficult to float an injured person out in a canoe without capsizing several times. The discomfort of being thrown into the rapids with a crudely splinted broken leg can hardly be described. For this reason, my strict instructions to members of the expedition before leaving are don't break no legs.
—Bill Kugle, member of the Texas Explorers Club and a Peggy Eaton founder.
EMERGENCY EXIT FROM THE CANYONS: The Border Patrol flies these canyons every few days, and you could possibly signal them with a mirror.
—Bob Burleson, member of the Parks and Wildlife Commission.
"I hear Anders has refused to let women go on this trip," said the hostess at a dinner party. "You know why? Macho stuff, that's why. He doesn't want to be sitting at the Scholz Garten drinking beer and bragging and suddenly hear some girlish voice pipe up, 'Oh, I did that trip last Easter, isn't it fun?' "
"Well, I saw some of the canoes today," I said.
"How'd they look?"
"They had a lot of dents."
The lovely Texas spring suddenly turned nasty. It began raining before dawn. At noon Bob Armstrong called. "How's your courage quotient?" he said.
"I'll just let it ride along with yours."
"I don't mind this rain," Armstrong said. "Flying on instruments is fine. But there's a few thunderstorms between here and Pecos. It probably won't be too bad. It just won't be good, is all."
The General Land Office in Texas controls 22 million acres of land and mineral resources, an area larger than Maine and only slightly smaller than Indiana. Armstrong, who is about 40, was elected Land Commissioner in 1970. He rides a motorcycle to the office, skis, backpacks into the mountains, plays the guitar, raises cattle, is a good photographer and a good canoeist. His wife Shannon used to teach canoeing someplace. The words that would have told me where she taught are a blue muddle now in my notebook.
A young woman from the Land Office picked me up in her car. "Last year they took 20 canoes down that part of the river you're going on," she said cheerfully. "Only three or four didn't turn over. I think Kennard turned over twice."
We stopped at a big white wooden house on a street with many trees. Dr. Spurr came to the door and looked out at the rain. "Some of these guys may not be very well organized, but we'll bungle through and have a good time," Spurr said. "I've canoed about all the canoe-able rivers in Michigan and Minnesota. Been on a lot of float trips around the country. But I can't say I'm an expert Whitewater canoeist. It's by guess and by God with me. How about you?"
"I can't remember whether I've ever actually been in a canoe before."
"Oh. Well. You're in for an interesting time, aren't you?"
Spurr is a forester with a Ph.D. from Yale. He taught and did field research for 19 years at the University of Michigan. Later he became a compromise dean at Michigan following a campus political struggle. He was hired by Texas in the midst of another political fight which at the time of our trip was nowhere near over. Spurr picked up a small bag, put on a straw farmer's hat and kissed his wife. "If they fire me here," he said, "we can go back to the woods and be just as happy."
The 2½-hour flight to a landing strip on a ranch outside the town of Marathon wasn't bad, considering it rained most of the way and the plane iced up. Clifton Caldwell met us at the airstrip with his truck. He is president of the committee that puts up historical plaques and attempts to protect old buildings. Caldwell is a West Point graduate who flies his own plane and owns some ranches. One is 7,000 acres out in the Big Bend, which Caldwell says is not enough land to make a living on in that kind of country. The main ranch is outside of Albany, Texas, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. "My nearest neighbor is 11 miles," Caldwell said, "and it's 35 miles from my house to a bottle of beer."
The truck sped along a highway cut through greasewood and cactus. The mountains turned gold and purple in the dusk, and, beyond, higher mountains rose across the river in Mexico. Caldwell told about driving into this area looking for a place called Stillwell Crossing. "At the river we ran into a snaggletoothed old man and asked if we were at Stillwell Crossing. The old man said if we had an airplane we could just fly right over that mountain and be there in no time. If we didn't have an airplane, go 75 miles back down the road and turn left. The old man thought that was really funny."
We entered Black Gap and descended on a rough road toward the river at Maravillas Canyon. "This is about as remote a place as you can find in Texas," Spurr said. Up ahead we saw a camp-fire. We could hear the river. The first rapids of the trip was 50 yards away.
Most of the others were standing around the fire. They were playing guitars and harmonicas, singing, talking, drinking whiskey. But always we could hear the river like a wind blowing.
"You done much canoeing?" Caldwell asked me.
Caldwell nodded. What I didn't know at the time was that he had read a Sierra Club report on the trip we were about to undertake. It dwelt on difficulties and dangers of the river, warned that under no circumstances should the trip be attempted by a lone canoe, and said no one should paddle that stretch of the Rio Grande who was not an expert canoeist in excellent physical condition.
If I had seen that report, there might not have been any story like this.
The Rio Grande rises at the Continental Divide in southern Colorado and flows 1,800 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. It goes south down the center of New Mexico, enters Texas at El Paso and turns southeast to form the border between Texas and Mexico. At the Big Bend the Rio Grande turns and runs north, northeast and east for more than 200 miles before dropping southeast again. Most of our trip would be north and northeast. It seemed to me it was bound to be harder to paddle north than south, but what did I know? I was assured it wouldn't make any difference unless a good north wind came down into our faces.
Long stretches of the river are often dry enough to walk across. Farmers in New Mexico irrigate from the Rio Grande. Sante Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces and El Paso, among other cities, take water from it. The Rio Conchos flows from Mexico to replenish the Rio Grande at Presidio, but Mexico has built a dam on the Rio Conchos to irrigate sections of the Chihuahua Desert. The Mexicans pretty well control the level of the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles through the Big Bend. After the river turns south again, past Langtry, another big dam at Del Rio creates the Amistad Reservoir, an enormous twisty lake that looks like a tidelands bay.
Some of the canyons on the river have never been named on official documents. The area we were to go through is usually called Reagan Canyon, or Bullis Canyon, although in fact several canyons enter the river there. The walls are steep and there is seldom a place to climb out. Where the canyons are less vertical, an occasional smugglers' trail may be seen. There is a steady, illegal business in smuggling the candelilla plant into Texas for the making of high-grade candle wax. Now and then you come across remains of a camp marked by the presence of 50-gallon drums used for boiling down the wax. The occasional goatherder's camp is always empty, although the coals may be warm. Marijuana and peyote no doubt come through there sometimes, but it is difficult country for a smuggler to cross.
Temperatures in the Big Bend go up to 140° in the summer and down below freezing in winter. This was April, and I figured it would be hot all day and cool at night. But the cold look of the rainy morning back in Austin had persuaded me to borrow a long underwear top. God bless it. The first morning at the camp on the river I was huddled behind a truck with a coffee cup shaking in my hands. My sleeping bag lay crumpled in dark wet grass. I was wearing everything I had brought with me. Palms red from the hot cup but fingers blue. We were camped beside a huge midden, a mound of dirt, stones and cooking utensils built up by Indians over centuries. Anders Saustrup walked past in a T shirt, suspenders and baggy pants, brushing his teeth.
"What the hell is this with the T shirt?" I said. "Don't you realize it's about to snow?"
"It's not cold. It's very nice weather. Beautiful weather, in fact," said Anders, fog blowing out of his mouth.
Anders was born in Denmark. What business does a Dane have telling a native-born Texan whether it's cold or not? This might have been a pleasant spring morning on the Arctic Circle, but for this time of year in Texas it was cold. I could hear that first rapids roaring. Caldwell came by wearing a yellow rain suit. I asked if he thought it was cold. "The water sure will be," he said.
My first canoe partner was Bill O'Brien, a young, hairy-faced architectural engineer from Fort Worth. He is a son of Davey O'Brien, who was an All-America quarterback at TCU and set passing records for the Philadelphia Eagles 30 years ago. Bill went to the University of Wyoming and likes to climb mountains. He didn't let on if he was worried we might dash into the rocks.
"After the first two rapids you'll know what to do," said Jenkins Garrett. "Just remember when you run into cane and salt-cedar branches that grow over the river, don't pull away from them and upset the canoe. If you hit something in the water, lean forward, downstream."
In the morning light the air was so clear that mountains across the river in Mexico looked fake. The dry air does tricks with distances. Canyons that appear only 500 feet high will in truth be three times that high. A wall you think you can hit with a rock you might not be able to reach with an arrow.
We put into the river just up from Maravillas Creek, which is 100 miles long, has a bed that would accommodate the Hudson, and is usually dry. Bill and I looked at the narrow, boiling channel of the rapids. "Might as well," he said. We got up a bit of speed, entered the current and whanged into a rock. There was a scraping sound like tin tearing. The current began to swing the canoe broadside to the flow of the river. "Use your paddle like a lever," Bill yelled. I stuck my paddle between the boat and the rock and yanked. We popped loose from the rock, shot down the channel, crashed through some overhanging cane and were past the first rapids. It was not one of the monster rapids of North America, but I will remember it fondly.
The second rapids, we raked bottom rocks. The third, we went too far left and I shoved at a boulder with my hands as we slid quickly past. It was not a classic move. But anything you need to do to keep a boulder from knocking you into the water has to be acceptable.
By now it was warm enough to peel off my windbreaker, wool shirt and long underwear top. The water moved us along with easy paddling. The land, called Outlaw Flats, was fairly level for a while before it climbed toward the mountains. Up ahead in Mexico was a sheer, flat-topped butte that shone red in the morning sun; it is known as El Capitan and is supposed to hold a clue to a lost mine.
Several little girls and a woman were fishing on the Texas bank. Were they, too, intrepid explorers? A man and his son had pulled their outboard onto a gravel bar a mile farther on. "You turn over yet?" the man yelled in greeting.
During the day we stopped and climbed a rocky slope. Curtis Tunnell, the state archaeologist, pointed out broken Indian tools on a large midden. Round mortar holes had been dug into the rock for the grinding of grain. Flints lay on prehistoric scraping sites. Buzzards floated above the river. Marshall Johnston, a University of Texas botanist who had been working for months in the Chihuahua Desert, which is nearly as large as all of Texas, pulled up a wild tobacco plant with yellow blossoms. Creosote bushes and candelilla grew all around. Dr. Johnston broke open a plant called leatherwood, or dragonroot, which Indians used as eye medicine. It pours blood when uprooted.
Then we entered the canyons. First the wall rose on the Mexican side, and we hit some rapids. Then the wall of Reagan Canyon soared on the Texas bank. For the next 40 miles we would be in the canyons, and the walls would get higher and closer as we went downstream.
When we landed to make camp, I dragged my two U.S. Marine surplus waterproof packs up the bank onto a grassy bluff and began to unload them. Packing is a tedious chore, done in the cold early morning. The straps make your fingers bleed. Unpacking is a lot better. When you dig toward the cognac bottle and the sleeping bag, you feel you're getting something done.
I spread my air mattress and sleeping bag and looked at the stuff I had brought. Knife, mess kit, spoon, cup, water jug, canteen, three paperback books, two pairs of Levi's, sneakers, windbreaker, two T shirts, one wool shirt, long underwear, tape recorder, batteries, life jacket, straw hat, towel, two Flair pens, a notebook, three cassettes (including, accidentally, an old tape of Janis Joplin singing in Austin at Kenneth Threadgill's birthday party where a girl got bit by a rattlesnake, and another old tape of Tom Landry talking about God and football).
And food, of course. Kennard and I were splitting rations. We had cans of chili, cans of Salisbury steak, cans of stew, a bag of rice, many boxes of raisins, milk chocolate, vegetable soup cubes, powdered potatoes, onions, Vienna sausages, potted meat and crackers. I looked at that mound of food lying there, patted my sleeping bag and knew a great contentment.
Then I looked around the camp. My God, it was Brasilia! Orange and yellow and green and blue nylon tents had sprung up everywhere. Inside the tents were air mattresses and puffy sleeping bags and hunks of foam rubber and candle lamps for warmth and light. All over the place little Swiss cooking stoves were burning.
Bill O'Brien was preparing a hot meat-loaf dinner with vegetables. Jenks Garrett and his son Jenkins Jr. were dining on soup, tea, lasagna and banana pudding. Dr. Spurr and Clifton Caldwell had opened a crate packed with dry ice and removed a couple of filet mignons for dinner. Except that he scorned the use of a tent, Dr. Spurr was elaborately equipped for the trip. I asked him at different times for tweezers, a hand lens, suntan lotion, a saw, a can opener, a Brillo pad. He had them all. He even had packets of sugar from the Coconut Grove, Ambassador Hotel, 1968 Rose Bowl. The only thing I asked for that he didn't have was a piece of watermelon.
But where had all this stuff come from? How had they crammed it into the canoes? Well, a whole pot of lasagna with plenty of meat fits into an envelope now. The cooking stove folds into nothing much. You can almost stick a new sleeping bag into your coat pocket. A tent doesn't take up as much room as a pillow. But I had not been into a sporting-goods store in a long time, and my old sleeping bag occupied as much space as Alex Karras doubled over.
In the middle of the night the wind struck. Tents clapped and wires whined. The wind itself sounded like rushing water. "The Mexicans have let water out of the Rio Conchos!" someone yelled. But no, it was just a blue norther. It was what a friend of mine would call semi-miserable. In fact, it was halfway an ordeal. It was cold to begin with, and the wind wouldn't let up. As we went down the river again, the wind stayed in our faces. We had to dig water to move. I was thinking I wouldn't do this again for $1,000.
In the afternoon we came to Arroyo San Rocendo, the biggest canyon entering the Rio Grande from Mexico. We had passed Asa Jones pumphouse, a cabin stuck against the top of a steep cliff, with broken water pipes sticking down toward the river. Bill O'Brien climbed to the top, just as he later scaled a cliff to rescue a baby goat trapped on a ledge. After the pumphouse we heard the rumble of rapids around a sandstone corner. At San Rocendo is Big Hot Springs Rapids, named for the hot springs on the Mexican shore.
They say it is not advisable to run Big Hot Springs. We got out and lined our canoes down through the rocks to a pool between two sections of the rapids. It was hard, wet work, crawling over slippery boulders, dragging canoes and equipment. When the last canoe was in the pool, we were tired and shivering.
"Hey," somebody yelled, "Dwight Deal wants his canoe brought back above the rapids!" Dwight Deal, the geologist, was traveling alone in his own canoe, a red one with a deck that could be sealed like a kayak. Dwight had been up in San Rocendo, looking at sandstone ledges, and his canoe had been lined down with the others. But Dwight wanted to run Hot Springs Rapids. The canoe was hauled back up. Dwight attached a line to his torso and asked for a couple of people to be in a canoe in the pool as a safety measure.
"Let him drown," someone muttered from the rocks.
Water broke around the boulder and pounded through the rocks like a storm. Dwight's canoe entered the rapids almost slowly, protruded over a ledge for an instant, moved delicately past the boulder, slipped around a few more rocks and slid into the pool.
It looked so easy that everybody else jumped into canoes and shot the lower rapids and made camp at the hot springs.
I found a place that was sheltered on three sides by thickets and a cliff. Kennard set up his tent to block the wind from the fourth side. We built a large mesquite fire. Down by the river a hot spring opened into a natural rock tub about 15 feet across. We soaked in the spring for a while. For dinner we heated-cans of chili, chopped a couple of onions and cooked some rice on the fire and then stirred the mess up in a pan. It was as good as anything I ever tasted.
Dwight Deal sat down by the fire. He was pleased with himself. I asked how come he insisted on running the rapids. "I've studied that rapids over and over, and I knew I could do it," he said. "I saw the trick was not to react too much to the big boulder. The water coming off the boulder will squeeze you past it. If you use too much muscle, you'll flip out broadside and turn over."
"I thought you'd never been on this part of the river before."
"I haven't. The Sierra Club has 8-mm. films of Big Hot Springs Rapids," Dwight said.
For the first time on the trip I used enough breath to blow up my air mattress. I wrapped my life jacket in a towel for a pillow. Stuffed with chili, rice and onions, smoothed out by a little bourbon and a cigar, I lay in my bag just outside the firelight, listening to the talk, hearing the river and the wind. The stars were down in my face, all right. Orion, the Pleiades, Arcturus, the North Star, the Big Dipper. Moonlight spread over the canyon wall high up. Whoever said this was an ordeal?
I changed over to Bob Armstrong's canoe the fourth day out. We were going to catch up with some canoes that had gotten far ahead. Bill O'Brien wanted to hang back with the scientists. Armstrong was a little bothered because I weigh a lot more than he does, and also because he didn't want to turn over with his $1,400 worth of camera equipment. But he kept up a cheerful attitude about it.
"I guess you know how to reach and pry," he said as we set out alone.
"To reach, you reach out with the paddle and draw it toward the boat. If you reach to the right, it swings the front end to the right. To pry, you push out with the paddle, and the boat moves in the other direction. If you don't mind my asking, how did you manage to come 40 or 50 miles without knowing that?"
Up ahead was a noisy rapids. Armstrong stood in the rear of the canoe to study the flow. I thought you were never supposed to stand in a canoe. The good canoeists appear to do it whenever they want to. "Hit this one on the left and go like hell," Armstrong said. The canoe leaped ahead. Armstrong cried for me to pry on the left and I did. It was like a miracle. This boulder that I would probably have poked with the paddle or shoved desperately with my hands, this boulder flew past inches away with a satisfying hiss and gurgle. Then we were bouncing in haystack waves and spray. Then we paddled hard in an eddy before coasting in a current.
"See what I mean?" said Armstrong.
It had taken me several hours the first day to realize the person in the bow could help at all, steering in the rapids rather than merely providing locomotion. The person in the rear is the captain. He does most of the steering and, if the person in front does not stay alert and keep glancing back, the captain is liable to rest too much. But now this new knowledge about reach and pry gave me power. So an hour later we cracked into a rock and turned sideways. The canoe filled with water. We jumped out and fought to keep the boat from going over. You figure a canoe full of water weighs about a ton. Put the force of the current against it, and you can see why it is nice to have several people around to help.
We wrestled the canoe to shore and began bailing. Armstrong hammered out the dent. I had learned one lesson I didn't know I had learned until that night. The lesson is, no matter how cold and early it is in the morning, don't be sloppy the way you pack a waterproof bag.
Some things have blurred in my mind, but I remember a few places very well. I remember castle rock formations, keyholes to the sky 1,500 feet above our heads, side canyons hardly wide enough for a man to walk into. I remember climbing to a cave where the ceiling was black with centuries of cooking smoke and the floor deep in stones and scraping tools. There was a Campbell's soup can near the entrance.
Most of the rapids are no longer distinct to me. I can't even recall at which rapids the notebook escaped from my pocket and tumbled into the current. We found it 200 yards downstream. At another rapids I knocked off my eyeglasses while changing hands with my paddle but reached back with my left hand and grabbed the glasses as they disappeared underwater. All my life I have been dropping things with my right hand and catching them with my left before they hit the floor.
I remember Panther Rapids. We pulled over to the bank and climbed some rocks to examine it. Two college boys came along the river in a lone canoe. I heard one of them say, "Hey, could that be Dr. Spurr?" They looked the rapids over and then went into it. With a sound like a shot, the stern paddle cracked in half. But they made it through. Then we went. It was like a carnival ride. Haystacks broke across the bow.
Another bad rapids was called San Francisco. We glanced off a rock, tilted back and forth for an instant, straightened up and were back in calm water. Not much to it if you're lucky. I don't need a notebook to remember the portage. We lined the canoes through the rocks three times, I think, including Lower Madison Falls, where Dwight Deal turned over in an attempt to be the only one to run that rapids, too. But we had only one portage. It was at Upper Madison Falls. Nobody tried to run Upper Madison. You had to take all the stuff out of the canoe, carry it up a sandy bank and across a pile of 20-foot-high boulders and lug it down another sandy bank. Then you had to do the same thing with the canoe. Don't let anybody tell you there is anything good about a portage.
People were always eating. Eggs and bacon for breakfast. Candy bars, nuts, raisins, coconut, energy foods for lunch and snacks all day. Big dinners at night. I paddled 90-odd miles and gained two pounds. The unique meal was the Fruits-of-the-Native-Country banquet. First a pit was dug and lined with rocks. A mesquite fire was built in the pit, and coals heated the rocks. The sotol plant and a plant called lechuguilla, which looks like a big artichoke, were covered with leaves and they were placed on the coals and the pit filled with sand. About 20 hours later the sotol and lechuguilla were dug up and eaten with a boiled pot of prickly pear, yucca petals, wild onions and wild oregano. The lechuguilla was sweet, the sotol filling and edible but not worth the trouble, the prickly pear bland. Also, you could core a large onion almost to the bottom, put in a pat of butter, fill with Worcestershire sauce (borrow butter and sauce from Dr. Spurr), wrap in foil and roast in coals for an hour or so. It beats a lot of things.
Into the wind again. All day long. Hands have swollen and their backs split open. Neck and shoulders are riddled with needles. Keep head down, stare at water. Think about Oxford vs. Cambridge on the Thames. Terrible idea. Clang, bang, hit a rock, the hell with it. We run a rapids near a sandbar, and the wind blows sand into our faces. You can run a rapids and get a dirty face? Armstrong remarks that adventure and fun are not necessarily the same. For a mile ahead I can see whitecaps whipped up not from current but from wind. I discover something. Each stroke appears to move us three feet. That means 1,760 strokes will move us through these whitecaps. If the wind keeps up for the 30 miles left to go, that's only 52,800 strokes to home, boy. Let's hit it. That's two...three....
"If you start counting strokes, you'll go crazy," Armstrong says.
In all, the expedition examined more than 60 historic and prehistoric Indian sites, that had never before been officially recorded. Archaeologist Curtis Tunnell says Indians occupied the canyons for at least 12,000 years. About the only litter they left was burnt rocks, pieces of flint, dried bones. At one place the floor of a cave is deep in buffalo bones. It is near a cliff off which the Indians used to stampede the beasts. When you sift through the floor of the cave, you find a 4,000-year gap between layers of buffalo bones. That means either the Indians forgot how to stampede buffaloes for a long time, or else the buffaloes went away for 4,000 years. It is less than 100 years now since the last great buffalo slaughters of the West. So maybe buffaloes will come back again sometime.
Of the 6,000 species of plants that grow in Texas, about 50 are found only along the river. Each time one of those species dies out, it disappears from the earth. The Rare Plants Center puts exotic plants of this sort in courthouse squares, garden club plots and state parks, as well as greenhouses. "Of course, the only rational way to preserve the plants is to preserve their habitats," says Marshall Johnston, director of the center. He took more than 200 plant samples on the river and in the canyons. To protect the canyons, the state could buy scenic easements along the river, or the Department of Interior could declare the river a wild scenic area. But something else that might happen is that a third Rio Grande dam may be built at Sanderson Canyon. If it is, everything we saw will be gone except the tops of the canyons.
On our last night on the river, after laboring into the wind all day, we camped on a knoll and waited for the wind to die after dark. But it kept on blowing. Caldwell and Spurr fried the last of their steaks and shared them. I found a spot where the wind was muffled by a cane-brake and the rock wall. I settled into my bag, and then I heard a little scrabbling noise in the cane. Borrowing a flashlight, I saw I was lying beside a tunnel about five feet high that had been trod through the cane. Wild pigs, maybe. Deer, coons, coyotes, no telling what all. I moved over two feet and went to sleep happy and incredibly comfortable.
I read the Sierra Club story about the ferocious rapids and the need for physical conditioning. Caldwell and I talked it over. We decided the rapids and the paddling had been strenuous but not what you would call supremely difficult.
"I guess we're finished with the bad rapids," Caldwell said.
"Only one really tough one left," said Armstrong.
"I don't see it on the map."
"That's why it's known as Horrible Surprise Rapids," Armstrong said.
For the final few miles, the wind lowered and we paddled lightly. Terns flew in formation above our heads. Thousands of swallows skimmed the river, dipped their beaks in the water, and collected mud from the bank to build nests against the cliffs. The land was spreading out on either side. And there it was ahead of us: the Texaco sign nailed to a tree that marked the take-out place, Dudley Harrison's camp.
Only one more rapids. We drifted into some rocks and got out to look. The current swung close against a rock outcrop. Spurr and Caldwell got into their canoe and went into the rapids. They clattered against the outcrop. Spurr's paddle left his hands and looked glued to the wall for an instant. He grabbed it again, and they headed to shore. Armstrong and I had a choice of running the rapids or walking the canoe through a few feet of very shallow water. We walked.
We drove in Caldwell's truck for an hour across dusty brown land, scaring up a few sheep that took off toward the mountains. We stopped at a general store in the town of Dryden. The owner wore a baseball cap. "Wouldn't be surprised if you fellas got kind of cold on the river," he said. "Had a big freeze the last few days. Wiped everything out. Hell, it snowed over in Alpine."
We ate at the Big Bend Cafe in Marathon. Caldwell placed what he said is his usual order at a place that serves Tex-Mex food—six enchiladas and three tamales. They didn't have any tamales, but they brought the enchiladas stacked up on the plate like a mound of pancakes. I had three enchiladas, three tacos, tortillas, butter and a little bowl of jalape√±a peppers. As we were leaving, the woman behind the counter asked if we were some kind of a scientific outfit. We said yes ma'am, we were about halfway scientific.
"Then you must of heard about it," she said. "Down the road south of here they just dug up a 60-foot-long monster skeleton with a big fang buried in its neck. You didn't hear about it? Well, go down there right now and look at it. Tell them Sally at Marathon sent you."